Journalist paints a dark view
Crowd of 400
A crowd of nearly 400 students, faculty and community members braved winter storm warnings to listen to the Pulitzer Prize winner and author of "Chain of Command: The road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib," discuss the political and moral quagmires that he says President George W. Bush and top administration officials have helped to create.
Catherine Johnson, chairwoman of the college's political science department, introduced Hersh by expounding on the role of the media in disseminating information to the members of a democratic society.
After a lengthy round of applause, Hersh gripped the speaker's podium with both hands and launched into his admonishment of the current president with dark humor. "The bad news," Hersh told the crowd, "is that as of today, there are 706 days left in the reign of King George the Second. The good news is, when we wake up tomorrow, it's one less day."
No one spared
It was one of few times during the night where his words provoked laughter. Indeed, the subject matter was so grim that many in the audience could be seen putting their heads in their hands as Hersh denounced one U.S. blunder after another, sparing no one, not even journalists like himself.
"I read the paper critically, and ... there has been a failure in the press," said Hersh. "That failure is the inability to see or report on the immorality of what we're doing (in Iraq). For years after this war began, the media has been silent."
Hersh also addressed how the Bush administration had been "taken over by eight or nine neocons after 9/11, and they went over the top. With Iraq, they thought, 5,000 U.S. troops and a few special forces units will do it; democracy will spread from Iraq to Iran, Syria, and Lebanon."
Unfortunately, their calculations proved to be dangerously off the mark, and, according to Hersh, the neoconservatives' underestimation of the Iraqi insurgency led them to adopt a cavalier attitude towards U.S. actions in Iraq. By the time government and military officials realized the error of their ways, it was too late.
The disturbing abuses that transpired at Abu Ghraib prison, a story which Hersh broke in The New Yorker, were at the heart of Hersh's presentation. From September to December 2003, members of the U.S. 372nd Military Police Company of the 320th Military Police Battalion allegedly performed humiliating torture on Iraqi inmates, including stripping the prisoners naked and allowing guard dogs to attack them. One of the U.S. soldiers present at Abu Ghraib captured the humiliation on film, and, in January of 2004, turned the photos over to U.S. Army investigators.
Army Major General Antonio Taguba wrote what Hersh called a "blistering" report of the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Hersh obtained copies of the report and the photos and broke the story in May 2004.
"I don't know if our generation is ever going to live this down," said Hersh, choking up slightly as he spoke to the crowd.
Hersh noted that, in testimony related to Abu Ghraib given later that same year, Taguba said that he briefed then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the report on Jan. 22, 2004. Rumsfeld later testified that he informed Bush of the briefing two days later, but, "at this crucial time, Bush did nothing," said Hersh.
Neither did the newspapers after Rumsfeld's testimony that exposed the President's inaction. "There was not a word about it in the press the next day; nobody touched the story," Hersh said.
Perhaps the most devastating story Hersh related to the audience was that of a young woman who had been part of the 372nd at Abu Ghraib. When she returned to her Midwestern home , she quickly moved into an apartment by herself and took a night job so that she would never have to see any family or friends.
Her mother found a file of photos on her daughter's computer entitled "Iraq" that contained some of the same pictures from Abu Ghraib that gained international infamy. She told Hersh that she has struggled to talk to her daughter ever since because she sees her daughter as a monster.
Hersh compared this interaction to one he had had with the mother of a soldier who participated in the 1969 My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. Describing her son to Hersh, the woman said, "I gave them a boy, and they gave me back a murderer."
Most significant to Hersh was the observation the Abu Ghraib soldier's mother shared with him. She said, "When (my daughter) came home, she got new tattoos every week. Soon, her entire body from her neck down was covered with tattoos. "It was as if she was trying to change her own skin."
Hersh said that, while much attention has been given to the chaos plaguing Iraq, "We haven't even begun to understand the chaos that will come when our kids return."
A New England Journal of Medicine study released in July 2004 found that 17 percent of soldiers who had served in Iraq met the screening criteria for post-traumatic stress syndrome.
"It's a grim message," Hersh said in the final minutes of his talk. "We haven't begun to taste the bitter fruits of what we've wrought."
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